First, the Pittsburgh Steelers started the season 0-4.
Then they were disgraced in New England.
Then a three-game winning streak came to an excruciating end on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore.
Then Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds against the Dolphins, foiling what might have been an Immaculate Reception for a new generation.
None of that was enough to knock the Steelers out of playoff contention.
Visiting family in Rhode Island for the holidays, I watched Sunday’s game in Pawtucket. This is the city where I became a Steelers fan 34 years ago, just a few miles from the site of the Steelers’ infamous beatdown two months ago.
I have to admit I felt some trepidation about the name of the bar where I watched the game, Murphy’s Law. The Steelers needed everything to go right, not wrong, to complete a miraculous turnaround from 0-4 to the playoffs.
And everything did go right.
For a few thrilling hours Sunday, the Ravens and Dolphins were the teams pondering what might have been. Both were eliminated after their early losses while the Steelers’ playoff hopes went from a prayer to distinct possibility.
The Steelers completed a 6-2 post-Patriots record, defeating the Cleveland Browns 20-7 at Heinz Field. Meanwhile, the J-E-T-S gave the Steelers the H-E-L-P they needed from Miami with a 20-7 win over the Dolphins, and the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Ravens 34-17.
There was just one more Christmas present the Steelers needed.
It never came.
Now, even Steelers fans too young to remember any coach other than Mike Tomlin know there’s no Santa Claus, because the men in red and white couldn’t help their team.
In the late-afternoon game, the Steelers (8-8) needed the Kansas City Chiefs to defeat the San Diego Chargers in San Diego. Even though the Chiefs rested their starters, their backups were game, and suddenly the Steelers’ odds of making the playoffs were the best that they’d been since Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch embraced for posterity in Baltimore.
FIRST-PERSON INTERLUDE, PART II:
By this time, Patriots fans there for the Buffalo-New England game had taken over Murphy’s Law, but I was one of about five Steelers fans. We carved out our little enclave, and we were heard. The Chiefs’ understudies got on the board first, and every time the Chargers answered, the Chiefs answered right back.
Kansas City led 24-14 in the third quarter. At about 6:19 p.m., EST, @SteelersFanTN tweeted “Is there anyone out there, cause it’s getting harder and harder to breathe…#SteelersBelieve”
I couldn’t have said it any better myself.
At 6:25 I gave up on sitting down. Too nervous.
At 6:27, stuck at 799 followers, I shamelessly begged for one more follower, tweeting “Can I get an 800th follower before #Steelers season officially ends. Yeah, I’m nervous.”
800 followers before the end of the season had been sort of a goal. By 6:42, I had 816 followers. I felt like Professor Keating when his students stood on their desks in tribute to him in “Dead Poet’s Society.”
Thank you, boys. Thank you.
That analogy turned out to be more fitting than I would have liked, because the Steelers are now packing their belongings and making a bitter departure.
Had Shaun Suisham made field goals of 32 and 34 yards in Oakland or if someone, anyone, had tackled Terrelle Pryor on the first play from scrimmage that afternoon, the Steelers already would be watching Bengals game film when Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop lined up for what likely would be a game-winning 41-yard field goal with eight seconds left in regulation.
Instead, the Steelers watched helplessly as Succop’s kick went wide right.
According to Pro Football Talk (hat tip to @SteelerMatt2008 for alerting me), the Chargers should have been penalized for illegal formation on that attempt. But it wasn’t called.
C’mon, Bill Leavy was the referee. Wasn’t this supposed to level the playing field (wink, wink) in a game in which the Steelers’ fate rested on the Chiefs’ scrubs?
Ever since they flew back from London, the Steelers needed a miracle to get into the playoffs. Their miracle drug was about to wear off, but not before one last “Awakenings” moment. Yeah, another Robin Williams movie reference. Why not? The Steelers fans were the crazy ones at Murphy’s Law.
The Chargers faked a punt from their own 28 in overtime, and the Chiefs’ Cyrus Gray appeared to return Eric Weddle’s fumble for a touchdown. But the play was ruled dead after Weddle picked up the first down, and from there the Steelers’ remaining playoff chances slowly leaked away like air from a balloon.
Nick Novak’s 36-yard field goal with 5:30 left in OT stood, and the Chargers won 27-24. The Chargers earned the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC, and the Steelers were left with nothing but the No. 15 pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
Unless Roger Goodell takes it away.
Hey, the Chargers (9-7) deserved it more than the Steelers. Not only did they have the guts to fake that punt, but four days after Antonio Brown showed that he’s no Nik Wallenda, San Diego beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos at Denver.
Anyone seriously think the Steelers could have done that?
The Steelers are .500 for the second year in a row, but wasn’t this a more fun ride than last season?
This 2013 Steelers team that seemed headed toward oblivion when the leaves were changing colors somehow still had a shot at a playoff spot right up until 7:40 p.m., on Sunday night in Week 17.
Now all they have to do is start 2014 like they finished 2013.